I’m happy to once again welcome Michael T. Young to the blog. Mike is an amazing poet who calls me his “poetry mom.” I’m proud to call him my “poetry son.”
Mike’s third full-length collection, The Infinite Doctrine of Water (check out the amazing cover image), published by Terrapin Books (www.terrapinbooks.com), was longlisted for the Julie Suk Award. His previous collections are The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost and Transcriptions of Daylight. He received a Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His chapbook, Living in the Counterpoint, received the Jean Pedrick Chapbook Award. His poetry has been featured on Verse Daily and The Writer’s Almanac. It has also appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Banyan Review, Gargoyle Magazine, Rattle, Talking River Review, Tiferet, and Valparaiso Poetry Review.
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Michael T. Young
Rilke, in response to a young poet who sought his advice, wrote, “ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must,’ then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”
On the one hand, it’s commendable that Rilke advises the young poet not to seek validation for his art in its publication but in his urge to create. This rings true and is something we could all stand to remember as we pursue publication in the most prestigious journals or long for the big prizes. On the other hand, the singlemindedness of that closing declaration about building one’s whole life around writing, is more like a call to a religious passion and conjures images of monasteries and stained glass rather than someone at a desk striking out a bad line. This perspective goes back at least to the Romantics who deified the imagination. But it’s false and isolating.
Treating the desire to write poetry as a kind of monastic calling implies that if I’m not willing to sacrifice everyone and everything to my writing, then I’m not a poet. To that, I say, “h----s---.” I’m a poet because I write poems, because I like writing poems, I like laboring over the right word, the right rhythm, the image development, and every other nuance of language and poetic transition and metamorphosis. But I don’t have to turn my back on my wife to do that. I don’t have to ignore my children or friends to do that. I don’t have to quit my job and live under a bridge.
Poetry is not an all or nothing proposition; life as a poet is not an either/or ultimatum. To make life as a poet a devotion exclusive of all other things in life except perhaps as fodder for new work is to isolate the poet as a freakish creature from the rest of the world. It is to make of the poet a parasite that merely uses and consumes all around them in the production of their art, rather than seeing it as it is: one element in a full life. It is to turn the poet into a monster and provide a justification to replace the conscience they have sacrificed to the god of their imagination. But this doesn’t have to be. A poet is one who writes poems and likes the labor of writing poems. Plain and simple. This doesn’t require a monkish devotion that excludes all other aspects of life or a sacrifice of them. That is a lie the world tries to sell. As the poet Charles Martin put it in his poem, “A Walk in the Hills above the Artists’ House”:
“But if our writing matters, what
Makes it matter matters more
Than it does.”
Thank you so much, Michael!